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Zoo's polar bear escapes, seals 'washed away' in Duluth flooding

Floods and FloodingLos Angeles Times

The rains and flooding in northeastern Minnesota have devastated a local zoo, killing at least 14 animals. Amid the chaos, a polar bear had to be tranquilized after escaping her enclosure, and two seals "washed away" and wound up on a Duluth thoroughfare.

That may have been how passersby knew there was a problem at Lake Superior Zoo, said spokeswoman Holly Henry -- they drove past Feisty and Helen out on Grand Avenue. Escaped seal pictures were even popping up on social media.

The two seals survived the ordeal, but officials at the small Duluth zoo were mourning the loss Wednesday of the animals that died -- and the death toll may grow, Henry said.

PHOTOS: Duluth struggling with floodwaters

"We're still not entirely sure how many animals were lost," she said. Animals killed in the severe flooding included "all but one of the barnyard animals" -- those in the petting zoo. Six sheep, four goats, one raven, one vulture, one snowy owl and a donkey died in the flooding.

The zoo has a creek that flows through the 16-acre property, Henry said, and when torrential rains hit, there was "severe, severe flooding."

The drama began to unfold in the early hours of the morning. Overnight security at the zoo contacted the director of animal care about 3 a.m. to report flash flooding, she said.

Making sure the large, dangerous animals were contained was officials' top priority, Henry said. She stressed that the zoo's polar bear, Berlin, never escaped the zoo's perimeter fence. The animal did, however, leave her enclosure.

"When they first spotted her, she was on her exhibit -- but on the wall of her exhibit," Henry said. At that point, the animal was not agitated -- "she was really quite pleased with herself."

The police were on hand, as were two zoo officials.

Henry said zoo personnel shot the animal with a tranquilizer dart. Then, Berlin became agitated, and "it takes a few minutes after they're darted to go down."

“Even though it’s a large white object, it’s pretty nerve racking,” police spokesman Jim Hansen told the Associated Press of the attempt to corral Berlin.

Henry said of the zoo property itself: "It's a disaster." Officials won't know the extent of the damage to the zoo until the rain stops and they're given a chance to inspect and begin the clean-up process. 

The zoo has long been part of the Duluth landscape. Henry said the facility was getting ready to mark its 90th year.

She noted that much of the city of Duluth is now a mess, too: "Some of the roads look like there's been an earthquake."

On Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service in Duluth issued a flash flood emergency -- a first for the city. The mayor also declared a state of emergency.

Roads were treacherous, and police were telling residents to stay home, National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Stewart told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday morning.

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